That tricky horse handler - your remembering self

Do you ever wish:

  • You could manage your instincts and emotions better?
  • You would more consistently make decisions you are happy with?
  • You could motivate yourself better?

By now, I hope you've found some ways to improve by following this horse trail ride metaphor. Today we're going to talk about one reason why many of us make decisions we regret: We place our trust in someone who isn't trustworthy: our remembering self.

This article is part of a series.  You may wish to start with the first article.

"Discipline is hard," writes Dr. Atul Gawande.  "We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at."  Dr. Gawande is well-known for making an important connection: Discipline, that ever-elusive quality that separates successful people from wannabees, is directly connected to the relationship with have with our memory.

Memory is untrustworthy

"Many people believe that memory works like a recording device," said Elizabeth Loftus, in her TED talk.  She's been studying memory, specifically the phenomenon of false memories, since the early 1970s.  She continued, "You just record the information, then you call it up and play it back when you want to answer questions or identify images. But decades of work in psychology has shown that this just isn't true."

Dr. Loftus, considered by some to be one of the 100 most influential psychological researchers of the 20th century, is an expert in false memories.The authors of the paper also ranked her as the 20th most cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks.  She can say authoritatively, "Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people."  She adds:

If I've learned anything from these decades of working on these problems, it's this: just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn't mean that it really happened. 

As corroboration, I examined a "mega-analysis" of eight studies on false memories, including one participated in by Loftus.Scoboria, A., Wade, K. A., Lindsay, D. S., Azad, T., Strange, D., Ost, J., & Hyman, I. E. (2016). A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies. Memory, 25(2), 146–163. doi:10.1080/09658211.2016.1260747  The authors concluded, "Our results firmly support the assertion that suggesting false events can produce false memory in a substantial percentage of people.... Our results reinforce how important is it to continue educating people about the malleability of memory."

Another study examined people's memories of a public event, specifically, the O.J. Simpson trial.Schmolk, H., Buffalo, E. A., & Squire, L. R. (2000).
Memory distortions develop over time: Recollections of the O. J. Simpson verdict after 15 and 32 months. Psychological Science, 11, 39-45.
  Sixty-three college students were interviewed three days, 15 months, and 32 months after the trial, and their responses to the same questions were compared.  The study found, "After 15 months, 50% of the recollections were highly accurate, and only 11% contained major errors or distortions. After 32 months, only 29% of the recollections were highly accurate, and more than 40% contained major distortions."  Clearly, our memory of past events cannot be trusted.

One last study: Sixty-seven 14-year-old males were interviewed in 1962 and then again at age 48 in 1997.  They were asked 28 questions that were identical to those asked the first time.  For the large majority of the answers, the study authors concluded, "Accurate memory was generally no better than expected by chance."  In other words, a stranger would have had as much chance of guessing their answers as they did remembering them.Offer, D., Kaiz, M., Howard, K. I., & Bennett, E. (2000). The altering of reported experiences. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 735-742.  doi:10.1097/00004583-200006000-00012 

Why it matters

Of course, no one really thinks that memory is infallible.  But why are we making such a big deal about this?  It's because discipline, the ability to actually make ourselves do what we want in order to get what we want, is closely tied, as I mentioned above, to how we treat our memory.

We tend to make decisions that neither our past nor future selves would make.  Think about that for a moment: to do so is almost the same as having a rogue agent enter your body, making you do something that you normally wouldn't choose to do.  How many of us would be happy with that?  But most of us do it routinely.  For some examples, look back at what I wrote about situations where we either fail to carry out a decision or make a decision that we wouldn't have chosen to make in the past.

We also tend to forget what kind of person we are, what kind of person we want to be.  Many people get to the end of their life and realize they had a dream they forgot to pursue.  Or maybe we realize, too late, that we were living a life based on what we felt we should do instead of what we really wanted.  Or we allow negative experiences to tell us who we are, not realizing that we have control over our own story.

What is the remembering self, exactly?

I had to do some digging to answer this question.  I owe it to you, because though I've been writing on this concept for weeks I didn't have a clear picture of where these phrases come from.  I borrowed the phrase "narrating self" from Yuval Noah Harari, who apparently adopted the concept from Daniel Kahneman (also quoted in the same article).  To the best of my knowledge, Kahneman adopted this concept from Seymour Epstein, who himself borrowed heavily from the ideas of William James.

I need to point this out because it was the change in terminology that Harari used that inspired me to create this article series.  Both use the term "experiencing self," but as a counterpoint, Kahneman uses "remembering self" while Harari uses "narrating self."This phrase seems to originate from the work of Dorrit Claire Cohn who writes about modes of presenting consciousness in fiction.  To Cohn, the "experiencing self" relates a personal involvement in the narrative, while the "narrating self" provides a more detached version of events as if witnessing them but not personally involved. 

It was this distinction between two counterpoints to the experiencing self that made me think of another option.  If the remembering self is the product of an otherwise rational mind relying on faulty memory, why can't the narrating self be another role played by the rational mind, but one that takes charge of the narrative process to a greater degree?  Thus I created two characters in the metaphor to fill a similar role:  The handler, and the trainer.  

Horse training is challenging work, requiring a great deal of skill.  On the other hand, a person can become a horse handler with just a few hours of training.  Which would you want to prepare the horse that needs to take you to your destination?  Likewise, purposely taking on the role of trainer in our trail ride of life will produce much better results than relying on untrained memory.I in no way want to disparage the honorable profession of horse handler.  This role is often responsible for important things in real life.  But I needed another role in my metaphor alongside guide and trainer, so the unfortunate handler got the short stick.

In the conclusion to Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman points out that our "remembering self" creates problems that distort our perceptions.  "The remembering self's neglect of duration, its exaggerated emphasis on peaks and ends, and its susceptibility to hindsight combine to yield distorted reflections of our actual experience."

In his book, Kahneman mentions another reason memory skews our self-perceptions.  He uses assertive behavior as an example of availability bias.  Those who were asked to think of six examples of being assertive felt more assertive than those who were asked to think of twelve examples.  This is due to the brain's discomfort when having difficulty recalling experiences.  On the other hand, those who were asked to think of twelve examples of not being assertive felt more assertive than those who were only asked to think of six.

What we can do

The obvious answer is, we would benefit by finding ways to avoid relying on our memory as much as possible.

Gawande, quoted above, is best known for his book The Checklist Manifesto, which simply encourages the use of checklists whenever a complex, essential task is being carried out.  Airline pilots have used them for years.  Gawande, himself a surgeon, advocates this simple memory aid as a way to reduce possible catastrophic results from relying on memory.

Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.

Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

There's that word again: discipline. For many, it conjures up images of reduced freedom, but for the wise, it's a tool to give ourselves the ultimate freedom: the ability to keep our selves marching in lockstep, all the way to the goal.

Other ways to keep the handler at bay


From the studies above, it's obvious that if there's anything in your life right now that's important to you, it's worth recording.  Especially if it has to do with your goals, your values, your experiences, or your identity.

Writing to your future self

I started doing this with my 2019 annual review.  I made predictions and asked my 2020 self whether I was close.  It was like a fun game I played with myself.  I plan to keep doing this every year.  I also learned that decisions that can be delayed for a time are better handled in committee.  I can have several of my future selves look at the decision from a different emotional perspective.  I'm much more likely to be satisfied with the outcome that way.

Make sure to record the emotions

As I mentioned in The Three-Step Method to Emotional Intelligence, there are many reasons to keep track of our emotional experiences.  I'll add another one here.  Recently I was suffering an emotional low for physical reasons.  It was difficult to think of all the good things that have been going on in my life.  Fortunately, I had my mood journal from the last two years.  I was able to look back on the many good days I've had and also observe that there have been some other low times too, but seeing how many good days I had compared to the bad days convinced me that life isn't so bad.

Stories are worth recording

As I've already pointed out in this series of articles, seeing life as a series of stories has tremendous power.  It lets us see all the parts of our life, desirable and undesirable, as parts of a narrative that has value.  It can teach us about ourselves, and it can also be interesting to others.  Good storytellers don't rely on their memories (most of them, at least).  Sometimes the most fascinating parts of the story are in the details.  The only way we'll be able to tell the story later, when we really see the value in it, will be if we record them now.

Having a detailed map helps self-esteem

From the availability bias example above it's obvious that having a lot of instances of yourself being assertive already recorded would come in handy if your assertiveness is ever questioned.  This is why it's super useful to keep your identity map regularly updated.  

Keep recording!

These days we have many ways to document our lives: Computers, mobile devices, or a good old-fashioned notebook will do.  I hope it's clear that relying on memory isn't going to get you where you want to go. 

Speaking of where you want to go, we're now fully equipped for the ride.  We have all the crew on board, and our map is ready.  It's time to set out for the destination.  Next time, we'll hit the road!


  • Memory is untrustworthy
    • It can be rewritten
    • Our memory of past events can't be trusted
    • Sometimes it's more than useless
  • Why it matters
    • We can stay in control
    • We can do what we really want
  • What is the remembering self, exactly?
    • It involves relying on a faulty memory
    • We can take charge and create a new narrative
    • The handler represents the skewed perspective our memory gives us
  • What we can do
    • Record everything
    • Write to your future self
    • Record the emotions
    • Record the stories
    • Record the victories

Article series

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity
  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?
  3. The Horse Trainer: Narrate Your Life Like There's No Yesterday
  4. The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa)
  5. The Horse: Your Experiencing Self
  6. The Rider - Your Present Self
  7. Don't Beat the Horse
  8. The Fly on the Horse - Self-Distancing

Back to top